Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Furniture Makeovers: painting old wood with Jordan

We spent the weekend at the new nest, working on things like wiring and installing a dishwasher (okay, Brian was doing that, not me), and revamping old furniture to make new treasures for our house (that was me). As I worked on two very different dressers in the backyard, I thought about what tips I can offer up for the amateur furniture makeover artist. I’ve got a long history with refinishing furniture (in the past, I’ve done some pretty cool commissioned paintings on furniture), and I’ve found there are two ways to refurb an ailing wooden treasure: the fast way, and the right way. But don’t despair: there’s a time and place for both.


Refinishing furniture can be a complicated, smelly, toxic, messy, onerous task. Doing it the right way usually follows these steps:
1. Remove old paint
2. Sand
3. Apply primer
4. Sand
5. Apply paint, and sand again if needed
6. Clear coat

Dresser 1: BEFORE
The fast way goes like this:
1. Paint and pray

I usually follow the ‘right way’ when I’m doing a commissioned piece, but when it’s just for me, I have a third method which feels like a fair compromise:


1. Sand the piece with rough paper and a mouse sander
2. Prime
3. Paint
4. Clear coat


Here’s a few tips I’ve learned, primarily through trial and error and misery:

Dresser 1: AFTER!
a. SPRAY PAINT IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER. Spray paint needs a lot of coats to be effective, and tends to chip or scratch. If you want a brushstroke-free finish, use a roller with ‘real’ paint.

b. TYPE OF PAINT COUNTS. I buy a lot of ‘mis-tints’ at the hardware store—paints that have been returned because the colour was wrong, and are then sold super-cheap—but I always check on what type of paint it is. For furniture, a semi-gloss is better than an eggshell finish, though your clear coat will help with this as well.

c. QUALITY IS KEY. Choosing a higher-quality paint may mean the difference between one coat and three. This means in the end, the higher-quality paint will actually save you money.

d. TAKE BREAKS BETWEEN STEPS. Water-based paints need three days to off-gas, and oil-based paints need a week. This means that, no matter how dry your paint seems, it’s still releasing gasses for 3-7 days. During this time, do NOT apply your clear coat; you risk accidentally pulling off the paint, and you can end up with a finish that easily chips or peels.

Dresser 2: BEFORE
e. TAKE RISKS ON THE TRASHY STUFF. The blue dresser seen here was free, found on a street corner, in terrible shape, and headed to the trash. The creamy one was purchased (for a whopping $20), is more unique, and is higher quality. So naturally, I did the risqué paintjob on the cheap/free dresser, and did the ‘safer’ colours on the more expensive piece.

f. CONSIDER LOCATION. The creamy dresser here will now be used as a buffet/sideboard in our dining room, while the blue dresser is indeed still a dresser. But many people pass up great deals on furniture when they think they don’t have a spot for it. I’ve seen adorable high chairs made into plant stands, TV stands made into benches, and dressers made into kitchen islands. Don’t get stuck thinking about furniture as a one-trick pony; it can be as versatile as you like!

Dresser 2: AFTER
g. TO PAINT OR NOT TO PAINT? My dad cries a little every time I paint a piece of furniture. The reality is, many of the pieces I salvage were going to end up in the landfill if I didn’t paint them up. Yes, that ancient dining room chair might be a pricey piece if you could ever find a buyer, but sometimes no one is looking for one raggedy old hoopback. Painting it up and revitalizing it may give it another twenty years of life in a person’s home. People who freak out every time someone paints a chair are probably the same people who say women shouldn’t have to colour their grey hair: I’m sorry, but some of us just aren’t ready to look our age.

Look at those painty, painty hands.
On the flipside, of course, some pieces should be left well enough alone: church pews, cast iron sewing tables, and things handmade by your great-grandpa may deserve to be properly refinished by a professional. Ask yourself: is the look of the wood what gives this particular piece its magic? If the answer is yes, put the paintbrush away.

That’s just a few tips to get you thinking and hopefully get you feeling a bit more courageous! Worse-case scenario, you have to prime and paint again. Relax, folks; it’s just furniture. Now see what you can create!

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